"I don't know. I guess it wasn't until we got up here that I realized you guys were so serious about...never coming back."
Tally closed her eyes, remembering what having a pretty mind was like - everything vague and fuzzy, the world nothing but a source of entertainment, the future nothing but a blur. A few tricks weren't enough to make everyone bubbly, she supposed; you had to want your mind to change. Maybe some people had always been pretty-heads, even back before the operation had been invented.
Maybe some people were happier being that way.
"But now you can stay with me," he said, putting his arm around her. "It'll be like it was supposed to be. You and me pretty - best friends forever."
Tally shook her head, a sickening feeling sweeping over her. "I am not staying, Peris. Even if they take me back tonight, I'll find a way to escape."
"Why are you so unhappy there?"
She sighed, looking out over the darkness. Zane and Fausto would already be headed toward the ruins, thinking she wasn't far behind. How had she let this opportunity slip away? The city always seemed to claim her in the end. Was she really like Peris, somewhere deep inside?
"Why am I unhappy?" Tally repeated softly. "Because the city makes you the way they want you to be, Peris. And I want to be myself. That's why."
He squeezed her shoulder and gave her a sad look. "But people are better now than they used to be. Maybe they have good reasons for changing us, Tally."
"Their reasons don't mean anything unless I have a choice, Peris. And they don't give anyone a choice." Tally shook his hand from her shoulder, staring back at the distant city. A set of winking lights was rising into the air, a fleet of hovercars gathering. She remembered that the Specials' cars were held aloft by spinning blades, like the Rusties' ancient helicopters, so they could fly beyond the grid. They must be headed this way, pursuing the final signals of the cuffs.
She had to get out of this balloon now.
Before he'd jumped, Fausto had tied off the descent cord, and hot air was spilling from the envelope every moment. But the balloon, superheated as they'd burned off the cuffs, was losing altitude so slowly...the ground hardly looked any closer.
Then Tally saw the river.
It stretched out below them, catching moonlight like a silver snake, winding out of the ore-rich mountains to make its way toward the sea. On its bed would be centuries' worth of metal deposits, enough to make her hoverboard fly. Maybe enough to catch her fall.
Maybe she could get her future back.
She pulled her board back up onto the rail. "I'm going."
"But, Tally. You can't - "
Peris looked down, his eyes wide. "It looks so small. What if you miss?"
"I won't." She gritted her teeth. "You've seen those formation bungee jumpers, haven't you?
They've only got their arms and legs to guide themselves down. I've got a whole hoverboard. It'll be like having wings!"
"I'm leaving." She kissed Peris quickly, then threw one leg over the rail.
"Tally!" He grabbed her hand. "You could die! I don't want to lose you. ..."
She shook him off violently, and Peris took a fearful step back. Pretties didn't like conflict.
Pretties didn't take risks. Pretties didn't say no.
Tally was no longer pretty. "You already have," she said.
And, clutching her hoverboard, she threw herself into the void.
The beauty of the world...has two edges, one of laughter,
one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
Tally dropped into silence, spinning out of control.
After the stillness in the balloon, the rush of passing air built around her with unexpected strength, almost tearing the hoverboard from Tally's hands. She held it tightly to her chest, but the wind's fingers continued to search for purchase, hungry to pry away her only hope of survival. She clasped her hands around the board's underbelly, kicking her legs, trying to control the spinning. Gradually, the dark horizon steadied.
But Tally was upside down, looking up at the stars and hanging from the board. She could see the dark orb of the balloon above. Then its flame ignited, giving the envelope a silvery glow against the darkness, like a huge, dull moon in the sky. She guessed that Peris was headed upward to throw off the pursuit. At least he was trying to help.
His change of heart stung her, but she didn't have time to worry about it, not while plummeting toward the earth.
Tally struggled to turn herself over, but the hoverboard was wider than she was - it caught the air like a sail, threatening to pull itself from her grasp. It was like trying to carry a large kite in a strong wind, except that if she lost control of this particular kite, she'd be splattered all over the ground in about sixty seconds.
Tally tried to relax, letting herself hang there. Something was tugging at her wrist, she realized. Up here in the void, the board's lifters might be useless for flying, but they would still interact with the metal in her crash bracelets.
She adjusted her left bracelet to maximize the connection. Her grip on the board made surer, she straightened out her right arm into the rushing air. It was like riding in her parents' groundcar as a littlie, her hand stuck out a window. Flattening her palm increased the resistance, and Tally found herself slowly beginning to turn over.
A few seconds later, the hoverboard was beneath her.
Tally swallowed at the sight of the earth spread out below, vast and dark and hungry. The rushing cold seemed to cut straight through her coat.
She'd been falling for what felt like forever, but the ground didn't look any closer. There was nothing to give it scale except the winding river, still no bigger than a piece of ribbon. Tally angled her outstretched palm experimentally, and watched the curve of moonlit water turn clockwise beneath her.
She pulled her arm in, and the river steadied.
Tally grinned. At least she had some control over her wild descent.
As she fell, the silvery band of river grew in size, first slowly, then faster, the dark horizon of earth expanding like some huge predator advancing toward her, blotting out the starlit sky. Clinging to the hoverboard with both hands, Tally discovered that her outstretched legs could guide her descent, keeping the river directly below her.
And then in the last ten seconds, she began to realize how large the river was, its surface wide and troubled. She saw things moving in it.
It grew, faster and faster...
When the board's lifters kicked in, it was like a door slamming in her face, flattening her nose and breaking open her lower lip, the taste of blood instantly in her mouth. Her wrists were twisted cruelly by the crash bracelets, and her momentum squashed her against the braking hover-board, forcing the breath from her lungs like a giant vice. She struggled to pull in a breath.
The hoverboard was slowing rapidly, but the river's surface still grew, stretching farther in all directions like a huge mirror full of starlight, until...
The board struck the water like the flat of a giant hand, catching Tally's body with another battering jolt, an explosion of light and sound filling her head. And then she was underwater, ears filled with a dull roar. She let go of the board and clawed for the surface, her lungs emptied by the impact.
Forcing her eyes open, Tally saw only the faintest glimmer of light filtering down through the murky river.
Her arms struggled weakly, and the light grew slowly closer. Finally, she broke into the air, gasping and coughing.
The river raged around her, the swift current kicking up whitecaps in every direction. She dog-paddled hard, the weight of her pack trying to pull her back under. Her lungs sucked in air, and she coughed violently tasting blood in her mouth.
Turning from side to side, Tally realized that she hit her mark too well - she was in the dead center of the river, fifty meters from either shore. She swore and kept paddling, waiting for a tug on her crash bracelets.
Where was her hoverboard? It should have found her by now.
It had taken so long for the lifters to kick in - Tally had expected to pull up in midair, not hit the river at speed. But after a few moments' thought, she realized what had happened. The river was deeper than she'd anticipated; the minerals on its floor were a long way below her kicking feet. She remembered how hoverboards sometimes got wobbly over the middle of the city river - too far from the mineral deposits for the lifters to work at full strength.
It was lucky the board had slowed her fall at all.
Tally looked around. Too dense to float, the hover-board had probably sunk to the bottom, the raging current carrying her away from it. She turned up her crash bracelets' calling range to a whole kilometer, and waited for the board's nose to push itself above the surface.
Shapes bobbed along in the water all around her, knobby and irregular, like a flotilla of alligators in the fast-moving current. What were they?
Something nudged her...
She spun around, but it was just an old tree trunk - not an alligator, and not her hoverboard.
Tally grabbed on to it gratefully, though, already exhausted from paddling. In every direction were more trees, as well as branches, clots of reeds, masses of rotting leaves. The river was carrying all sorts of cargo on its surface.
The rain, Tally thought. Three days of downpour must have flooded the hills, washing all manner of stray matter down into the river, swelling its size and accelerating its current. The trunk she clung to was old and rotted black, but a few strands of green wood showed from a break. Had the flooding ripped it from the ground alive?
Tally's fingers traced where the tree had broken, and she saw that something unnaturally straight had struck it.
Like the edge of a hoverboard.
A few meters away, another log floated, cut with the same sharp edge. Tally's crash-landing had snapped the old, rotten tree in half. Her face was bleeding from the impact; she could still taste blood. So what damage had been done to the hoverboard?
Tally twisted the call controls of her crash bracelets higher, setting them to burn their batteries down. Every second, the current was carrying her farther from where she'd landed.
No hoverboard rose up above the surface, no tugging came at her wrists. As the minutes passed, Tally began to admit to herself that the board was dead, a piece of junk at the bottom of the river.
She switched her bracelets off and, still clinging to the log, began to kick her way toward shore.
The riverbank was slippery with mud, the ground saturated by the rains and the swollen river.
Tally waded to shore in a small inlet, struggling through branches and reeds in the hip-deep water. It seemed the flood had collected everything that floated and dumped it in this one spot.
Including Tally Youngblood.
She stumbled up the bank, desperate to reach dry ground, every instinct impelling her to keep moving away from the rushing water. Her exhausted body felt full of lead, and Tally slid back down the slope, becoming covered with mud. Finally, she gave up and huddled on the muddy ground, shaking in the freezing cold. Tally couldn't remember feeling so tired since becoming a new pretty, as if the river had sucked away her body's vitality.
She took the firestarter from her backpack and, with trembling fingers, gathered a pile of washed-up twigs. But the wood was so wet from three days of rain that the firestarter's tiny flame only made the twigs hiss dully.
At least her coat was still working. She turned its heater up to full, not worrying about the batteries, and gathered herself into a ball.
Tally waited for sleep to come, but her body wouldn't stop trembling, like a fever coming on back in ugly days. But new pretties almost never got sick, unless she'd run herself too far down this last month - eating almost nothing, staying out in the cold, running on adrenaline and coffee, with hardly an hour in the last twenty-four when she hadn't been soaking wet.